Just wrapped day 3 in Baku, which included three interviews and some fun broll about town — 13 hours in all, including a great dinner at Namli Kebap. (By the way, how is it that everywhere I go has its own website?). Dinner rocked with a selection of kebabs: lamb, spicy lamb, minced beef, and chicken; bulgar rice, an “improvised salad” (says my host) of aubergine, cucumber, and tomato (and yes, Azerbaijan’s rep as a place of super-fresh veggies is still intact). And is all went down smooth with the unremarkable, but smooth lager Xirdalan beer (which I was happy to discover has its own 10-member “FacebookBeer Appreciation Society.”) Well, now it has 11 !
Despite the fact that I’m a one-man band here in Azerbaijan, I didn’t want to sacrifice quality. I have a local producer/interviewer and a translator, but I’m running camera (EX-1 @ 1080p30), audio, and lighting the whole kitten-kaboodle.
Given airline weight restrictions, I thought long and hard about what equipment to bring. I pared down my typical kit, and ended up with one small pelican (for the camera and fragile gear, including my 7” Sony HD field monitor); a shotgun case for the Sachtler tripod, 3 c-stands, and a well-wrapped Arri 1000k light; and a backpack for various grip/gaffer gear (the backpack went inside my checked-in suitcase).
Lighting was key. I didn’t know the locations in advance, so I needed to be flexible. For the Arri, I brought a chimera to soften it and an egg crate to reduce spill and focus the light.
I picked up a local dimmer with a 2k max, which would allow me to ramp the luminosity up and back. I also brought the lightweight LED Litepanel MicroPro, which doesn’t get hot, and is dimmable without changing the color temperature. I figured I’d use it for doc-style shooting in dark interiors or at night, or for interview fill.
This afternoon, my crew and I went to Deveci Broyler, an Azerbaijani poultry processing company. It was recently listed on the Azerbaijan stock exchange and accessed significant new capital, primarily because of its corporate governance reforms (Azerbaijani corporate governance is the topic of the film, and the client is the IFC, an arm of the World Bank Group). Well-dressed manager Elchin Abdullayev led us through a small, bustling office to his corner room. For the interview, I hoped to evoke a modern, corporate feel. Initially, I loved the glass office walls (“for transparency,” he quipped). The depth would help me throw the background out of focus! The only problem was that all the glass was reflecting everything around it—me, the producer, the lights. What to do?
I tried something new. I put the MicroPro on an arm extended from a c-stand, then literally suspended it 18 inches from my subject’s face, just out of frame. I never could have done this with a light that gave off heat. I removed the CTO filter, and really tweaked up the color temp toward a corporate blue. Since it’s powered with six batteries, voila, no cables. And the fact that colleagues were running in and out of offices in the background kept it real, showing the Manager in his element. The lighting on his face is more modeled than I would’ve preferred, but I gladly exchanged excessive facial contouring for the depth and interesting plays of light I was able to produce in the background.
Ultimately—and I never would’ve believed it—I lit this interview with a single tiny MicroPro LED light.
Coming to Baku to film a short documentary meant checking to make sure that anything I plug in doesn’t blow up like a firecracker. I brought an Arri 1000k light for interviews, which runs on both the USA’s 120 volt and the 220 in Azerbaijan. All I had to do was buy a 220 lamp from B&H, which I did. I got 4 plug adapters so I could charge my various batteries, phone, computer, etc, and I was good to go . . or so I thought! Hours before my departure, I realized my dimmer only ran on 120 volt. . . . So began a hunt, as I was taxied around town by my implacable driver, Jarulla. We soon strike gold at Santral Electrik, a halogen dimmer rated up to 2k watts. Fortunately, the guy behind the counter, my new hero Ceyhun, was not only an able salesman, but a quick electrician, who rewired the thing, transforming it from a home wall dimmer to a mobile video-production dimmer . . . There I was, good to go for interview set-ups. Thanks to Ceyhun!
On the 20th floor deck of the Landmark Hotel in Baku. Filming the hubbub of a city in transition. It’s cold, this “city of wind,” with the Caspian’s expanse so thorough, I feel like I’m at the ocean’s edge. About 12 years ago, the per person income was less than $1,000; today, it’s more than $10,000. The sole reason: oil. And the newfound wealth is evidenced in a hundred cranes bowing over the cityscape. Pricey cars share the streets with old Russian Ladas. Slick businessmen strut past old rural grandmas. A sleek, postmodern glass facade reflects a 13th century stone wall of the Old City. Baku, a contradiction.
Baku is a big city with a tiny airport. I’ve landed in Azerbaijan, a country with about 9 million people — 4 million of whom are jammed into this cosmopolitan city on the Caspian Sea. I’m here to shoot a documentary . . . Newly landed, we queue up to jam through a single door. On the other side, travelers are chain-smoking in an endless passport-control line. This of course is comfortable compared to my second connecting flight: In Istanbul, a people-mover had dropped us off at the base of our airplane — in the middle of a driving rainstorm! All us travelers were drenched before we could mount the stairs. The Turkish Airlines flight was straight out of Pan American Airways, with turquoise seats and friendly stewardesses (!). I half expect to see Leo DiCaprio flying the plane. . . . After 20 hours: DC-Franfurt-Instanbul-Baku . . . I’m here!